Space Grown Insulin Crystals Provide New Data On Diabetes

June 03, 1998

Diabetic patients may someday reduce their insulin injections and lead more normal lives because of new insights gained through innovative space research in which the largest insulin crystals ever studied were grown on the Space Shuttle.

Results from a 1994 insulin crystal growth experiment in space are leading to a new understanding of diabetes -- a hormone deficiency disease. This has the potential to significantly reduce expensive treatments, since treatment of diabetes accounts for one-seventh of the nation's health care costs. Sixteen million Americans suffer from hormone deficiency diseases such as diabetes, hepatic failure, hemophilia, Parkinson and Huntington diseases.

"The space-grown insulin crystals have provided us new, never-before-seen information," said Dr. G. David Smith, scientist at Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, in Buffalo, N.Y. "As a result, we now have a much more detailed picture of insulin," Smith said.

Because of the increase in crystal size, Smith's team is able to study in more detail, the delicate balance of the insulin molecule. Natural insulin molecules hold together and gradually release into the human body. With some of the new and unexpected findings, researchers may be able to improve how insulin is released from its inactive-stored state to its active state. This could greatly improve the quality-of-life of people who are on insulin therapy by cutting down on the number of injections they have to take.

"This new information can be used in the development of a new therapeutic insulin treatment for the control of diabetes," said Smith. Hauptman-Woodward is partnering with the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, a NASA Commercial Space Center, in Birmingham, Ala.

"We are doing crystal growth experiments in the near-weightlessness of space that really tell the story of how insulin works and give us clues of how, in the long run, to defeat diabetes," said Dr. Marianna M. Long, associate director of the center located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Insulin is one of the most important hormones in the human body because it regulates the body's blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, insulin is not produced in sufficient quantity, nor regulated properly. This metabolism disorder impairs the body's ability to use digested food for growth and energy.

Current treatment is to inject the insulin hormone. However, the peaks and valleys in insulin levels can lead to serious health problems, including blindness, lack of circulation, limb amputations and kidney failure.

Like many chemicals in the body, the three-dimensional structure of insulin is extremely complex. The intricate, blueprint-like arrangement of atoms within the insulin molecule determines how well the hormone interacts within the body. When grown on the ground, insulin crystals do not grow as large or as ordered as researchers desire -- obscuring the blueprint of the insulin molecules.

The center in Birmingham is one of NASA's 10 Commercial Space Centers managed by the Space Product Development Office within the Microgravity Research Program Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Each center represents a NASA partnership with industry and academia, pursuing product-oriented research in areas such as biotechnology, agriculture and materials. Unique research opportunities of the space environment are made available to encourage private industries to exploit the benefits of space-based research to develop new products or services.

NASA research has furthered the understanding of many diseases, including AIDS, heart disease, cancer, respiratory syncytial virus, sickle cell anemia, hepatitis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Note to Editors: Interviews with NASA, industry and university researchers are available via telephone, NASA/TV live satellite link or e-mail. Please contact NASA representative Steve Roy of the Marshall Center Media Relations Office at (256)544-6535.

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(Molecule diagram from Earth-grown crystals):
Like many chemicals in the body, the three-dimensional structure of insulin is extremely complex. When grown on the ground, insulin crystals do not grow as large or as ordered as researchers desire -- obscuring the blueprint of the insulin molecules.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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